Friday Review: Rescued! Forgotten Works for the 19th Century Horn

rescuedFor today’s review we have a new recording by John Ericson, Rescued! Forgotten Works for the 19th Century Horn. Ericson is Associate Professor of Horn at Arizona State University, and is a recognized expert on horn history and the 19th-century horn in particular. I’ve been looking forward to this recording for quite some time, and have avidly followed Ericson’s series of articles related to this project on Horn Matters. The entire series is well worth reading, but to summarize, Rescued! is the culmination of Ericson’s research into the repertoire and technique of the 19th-century single F horn, which is often overlooked by modern horn players. The written description of the CD is as follows:

Rescued! celebrates the forgotten works of a group of 19th-century hornists and composers. The music included in this recording was composed between roughly 1860 and 1910 and are quality works aimed primarily at low horn players of the late 19th century who still used single F horns. The works included in this recording are:

  • Nocturno, Op. 73 – B. Ed. Müller
  • Sonate, Op. 347 – Fritz Spindler
  • Melancholie, Op. 68 – B. Ed. Müller
  • Am Abend, Op. 71 – B. Ed. Müller
  • Gondellied, Op. 15 – Karl Matys
  • Lied ohne Worte, Op. 2 – Oscar Franz
  • Serenade, Op. 20 – Louis Bödecker
  • Lied ohne Worte – Josef Richter
  • Resignation, Op. 16 – Charles Eisner
  • Wiegenlied, Op. 69, No. 1 – B. Ed. Müller
  • Sonata, Op. 7 – Hermann Eichborn

Most of the compositions on this recording will be new or at the least unfamiliar to a majority of horn players. And while the works presented here may not have been written by the “A-list” composers of the time, they are still high quality and worthy of study. The scores are all available on IMSLP for free, and I think that Ericson’s fine recording will help revive an interest in them. Any would be perfect additions to a recital.

I’ve heard Ericson perform numerous times, and both he and pianist Yi-Wan Liao are in top form on this recording. The technical difficulties involved in performing on the single F horn are daunting: mouthpieces, crooks, accuracy, intonation, etc. Yet Ericson plays with exceptional musicality, not to mention spot-on accuracy and intonation throughout the entire disc. As one might expect, the sound of the single F horn is reminiscent of the natural horn – warm and velvety in softer dynamics, with a bit of sizzle at forte volume. The piano sound is also quite warm, accentuating (without dominating) the horn sound. Most of the works emphasize the lyrical capabilities of the instrument, although the Eichborn Sonata and a few others contain some nice technical passages as well. Listening to this disc, one might assume that playing a 19th-century single F horn is an easy task – if you’ve ever tried it you know that isn’t the case! “Wolf” notes are more frequent and difficult to control than on the modern double horn, and achieving any level of accuracy requires great skill and an exceptional ear. Bravo to Ericson and Liao for releasing this fine disc!

Review: Songs of Love, War and Melancholy/Mozart: Stolen Beauties

songsoflovegallaycoverI recently received two wonderful new discs for review from Anneke Scott, a phenomenal performer on both natural and valved horns. Scott serves as principal horn of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and The English Baroque Soloists, and also performs frequently as a soloist and chamber musician. In addition to her busy performing schedule, she has also found the time to record several albums of music by the great 19th-century horn virtuoso Jacques-François Gallay. The third and final volume in this series is titled Songs of Love, War and Melancholy: The operatic fantasias of Jacques-François Gallay (read a review of the second album here.) As in her earlier Gallay recordings, Scott’s natural-horn playing is expressive, athletic, and robust; in short, very impressive! She negotiates even the most difficult passages on the natural horn with beguiling ease. The selections on this disc belong to a repertoire that was extremely popular during Gallay’s day, but is less known to modern horn players. Here’s a brief quote from Scott’s liner notes, which are copious and very informative.

During this period the opera fantasia offered virtuoso musicians the opportunity to demonstrate a number of aspects of their playing that were viewed as highly desirable by their audiences. The choice of themes, especially if Italian in origin, was à la mode and their settings offered the musician the opportunity demonstrate his amazing skills both in performing a melody in a vocal style as well as showing off with spectacular embellishments.

I think the same holds true today for these works, though they do contain plenty of “real” music, and not just virtuosic display. It is also interesting that while Gallay’s Op. 27 Preludes and Op. 57 2nd Horn Studies have become a standard part of the modern horn player’s curriculum, these equally (if not more so) substantial pieces remain more or less unknown. I was familiar with operatic fantasias for horn, mainly through Thomas Bacon’s edition and recording of C.D. Lorenz’s Fantasie, Op. 13, but I knew very little about Gallay’s contributions to the genre. One factor that probably contributes to this disparity is the difficulty in tracking down modern editions of these works. The Op. 46 Fantaisie sur ‘L’elisir d’amore’ can be found on IMSLP, and Op. 49 is available through Koebl, but I was unable to find either public domain or commercial editions of the other works. I contacted Ms. Scott, and she quickly responded with the following information.

Now, all the Gallay pieces are available but right now it’s a bit tricky. I published them as part of the crowdfunding for the original disc. (They’re all here: http://www.plumstead-peculiars.com/Index.html). But just what with one thing and another haven’t had the chance to set up selling myself. They will be available from www.corniworld.com (Sheet music) and www.devinemusic.com (downloads) I think from July onwards.

So, it looks like new editions of these will be available very soon. These are lovely pieces – especially the three works for horn, voice, and soprano – and would make excellent editions to any recital.

stolenbeautiescoverThe second recording for review today is Mozart: Stolen Beauties, a collaboration between Anneke Scott and the period instrument ensemble Ironwood. Here’s a brief introduction to the album, again from Scott’s liner notes.

In this disc we take as our central point one of Mozart’s most memorable works for horn – the Quintet in E-flat major, KV407. Rather than choosing the more common path of combining this work with a number of other late 18th- and early 19th-century works for horn and strings…we have illustrated the various ways in which Mozart’s works have been ‘appropriated’ for the horn, or, in one case how Mozart ‘appropriated’ a work for himself.

The result of this novel approach to programming is an album full of obscure, but nonetheless beautiful, works for horn and various combinations of strings and piano. The exception is of course Mozart’s well-known Quintet, but the interpretation recorded here makes for very enjoyable listening as well. There is a freshness and presence to this album that rivals anything I’ve heard from modern instruments. Like the Gallay recordings, the liner notes are meticulously researched, yet pleasant and easy to read. Horn players will be especially interested in the recording of Michael Haydn’s Romance in A-flat major, which bears a striking resemblance to the Romanza movement from Mozart’s K. 447 concerto. Scott’s explanation and subsequent thesis regarding this peculiar work are quite convincing. I must say that after listening to both works back to back the Haydn seems more musically interesting! The music on this recording is a little more difficult to track down than the Gallay disc. Here are some additional details from Ms. Scott.

For the music on the Mozart disc it’s a bit more tricky. The Mozart quintet is quite easy to get hold of. I thought the Michael Haydn was as well but now looking for it it seems more tricky. We used a copy of the original edition – maybe I should do an edition of that myself? The Punto duets I found in a library in Russia and did my own edition which again I should make available through Plumstead Peculiars. I did the same with the Anon variation – these are available from Tanglewind Music – http://www.tanglewindmusic.com/Site/Historical_%26_Urtext.html. They’ve got the variations down as being by Puzzi which is a misreading of the manuscript, also the extra variation is missing from this edition.
The Kegelstatt though… I did my own edition for this piece so it’s kind of ready to publish but I’d like to do a lot of work on it first. There’s a lot of “textural” things in it – for example places where Livius obviously made a mistake (some strange viola figurations) which needed correction and other places where he deviates from the original Mozart. Eventually I would like to publish this but there’s a lot of information that I’d like to include so that performers have various options and can make their own decisions. Basically it needs a critical report. So it’s on the cards but I need to find the time to do it.

Also of note is Scott’s use of a hybrid instrument, a natural horn by Courtois Frères, Paris, c. 1835, with a removable set of piston valves (sauterelle) by Antoine Halary, Paris, c. 1840. She seamlessly combines both hand horn and valve technique in her recording of Mozart’s Concertante for pianoforte, horn, viola, and cello, arranged by Barham Livius.

On a related topic I’ll close with a general statement about Scott’s natural horn playing, which incorporates lots of different colors and expressive contrasts. There are varying schools of thought regarding hand horn technique, one of which emphasizes absolute evenness and consistency of sound between stopped and open notes. While there is merit to this approach, I personally enjoy hearing a difference in stopped and open timbres, especially when in the hands of a consummate musician like Anneke Scott. When performed tastefully, these contrasts add an elusive, but very important, quality to the music of that era. As a primarily modern (valved) horn player, I have been inspired by these recordings to strive for more expression and timbral variations in my own playing. I think you will as well!

Recording Reviews: Uncommon Ground & En-Cor!

For this week’s post I have two brief recording reviews. First up is a recent release on the MSR Classics label, Uncommon Ground: Contemporary Works for Trumpet with Horn, Trombone, Piano, and Organ. I was particularly interested in this album because three of the performers were classmates of mine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Amy Schendel, trumpet, Todd Schendel, trombone, and Bernhard Scully, horn. All three have gone on to distinguished careers as performers and educators, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to perform with them. A majority of the tracks on Uncommon Ground are world premiere recordings, including two works for brass trio, Jean-François Michel’s Suite pour Trompette, Cor et Trombone (1994), and Joseph Blaha’s French Suite (2011). Both are very fine compositions, and highly recommended for those looking to expand their knowledge of the brass trio repertoire. For a little bit of background on the Michel, here’s a quote from my article on brass trio repertoire in the most recent issue of The Horn Call.

Michel is a professor at the Haute Ecole de Musique in Fribourg, and is a prolific composer and arranger for brass. The first movement opens with extended solo fanfares for the horn and trombone, followed by a faster section full of syncopation and mixed meters. The lyrical second movement makes for a nice contrast with the faster, more energetic outer movements. This piece puts some new twists on a traditional form, with plenty of great writing for all three instruments. “Brass Trio Repertoire: Beyond Poulenc”, The Horn Call, May 2015.

Joseph Blaha serves on the faculty at Roanoke College, and his French Suite was commissioned by the Contrapunctus Brass Trio (Amy Schendel, Todd Schendel, Bernhard Scully). I had the opportunity to hear these players in a live performance of the piece at the 44th International Horn Symposium in Denton, TX, and was very impressed. Modeled after the French Suites of J.S. Bach, Blaha’s trio makes frequent use of counterpoint, with plenty of interesting lines for all three instruments.

The playing on this album is of the highest caliber, as one would expect, and I was especially impressed by the clear, focused sound and impeccable intonation throughout. All three players are comfortable with the entire range of their instruments, and are able to produce, in my opinion, exactly the “right” sounds required by the music.

The second and final review for today is En-Cor!, featuring the American Horn Quartet. Financed primarily through a Kickstarter campaign, En-Cor! is likely the final recording by one of the most decorated brass ensembles in the world. After nearly 30 years of concerts, competitions, master classes, and residencies, the AHQ will be collectively retiring in 2015. (For much more information on the history of the AHQ, see Kerry Turner’s article in the May 2015 issue of The Horn Call). Though the ensemble has recorded most of the major works for horn quartet, including group member Kerry Turner’s own fine compositions,  the CD booklet notes that there were many other lighter works in their repertoire that had not yet been recorded. Over the years, these brief compositions became audience favorites, and were often used as encores at AHQ concerts. Thus, En-Cor! is in many ways a retrospective of some of the quartet’s finest playing, spanning everything from Bach to Bernstein. As for their performances, I can’t really say much that hasn’t already been said. If you’re a horn player, chances are you’ve heard of the American Horn Quartet, and if not, buy this album – or any of their albums – today. You will hear playing that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible on the instrument, all the while with warmth and expressiveness to rival any other chamber group out there…period.

The AHQ holds a special place in my heart because I grew up listening to their recordings. There are only a handful of brass ensembles that I’ve listened to consistently over my 20+ years as a horn player, and the American Horn Quartet is one of them. Having heard them live multiple times, I can also say that this recording is representative of their actual abilities and sound. What you will hear is not recording studio magic; they really do sound this good! And while it is a little saddening to know that the group will be retiring after their final performances at the 47th International Horn Symposium, I am comforted by two things:

  1.  Their many fine recordings, including this one, which have left such an incredible impression on generations of horn players.
  2. The handful of other professional horn quartets currently performing, many of them modeled after the AHQ’s example.

To paraphrase the closing of Kerry Turner’s article in The Horn Call, when the AHQ began 30 years ago, a horn quartet was considered more of a novelty than anything resembling a legitimate chamber ensemble. Today, there are many other brass chamber groups (not just horn quartets) who have benefited from the AHQ’s groundbreaking career. And while the reviews, recognition, and awards the AHQ has garnered over a nearly 30-year period would be considered remarkable in any field, their true legacy is the legions of horn players they have influenced and inspired.

Summer Plans, 2015

DuetHornsCoverWebAfter a somewhat busier-than-usual end to the semester, I’m finally settling into a summer schedule. As always, the next several weeks will include some much needed relaxation and social time with family and friends. In addition, I have some exciting events and projects to plan for in the coming months. Here’s a brief summary, with more details to follow in future posts.

  • Solo Duet Training for Horns is Complete: My new duet book from Mountain Peak Music is at the printer, and should be ready around June 1. After spending the last year working on this project (you can read more about it here), I’m very excited to see the final version in print! I have plans this summer to promote and introduce these duets to the horn playing community, including more videos and a presentation at an international conference.
  • Back to Blogging: Now that the duet book is finished, I am looking forward to spending more time writing and posting content to this website. I’ve missed it! Look for more frequent updates in the future.
  • Recording Reviews: As a subcategory of the above, I have several recent recordings in need of reviews, and will be working on those throughout the summer. Among them is En-Cor!, the American Horn Quartet’s most recent (and final?) recording, Uncommon Ground, an album of works for trumpet, horn, trombone, and organ (including two world premiere recordings of brass trios), and Songs of Love, War and Melancholy: The Operatic Fantasias of Jacques-François Gallay, a brand-new release by natural horn virtuoso Anneke Scott.
  • Arranging Projects: Taking a break from big projects this summer, but will be working on a few small-scale arrangements for horn and piano and brass trio.
  • 47th International Horn Symposium: The musical highlight of my summer will be the 47th International Horn Symposium, hosted by Andrew Bain and Annie Bosler at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, August 2-8. During the symposium I’ll be participating in three events: 1) performing the world premiere of Gary Schocker’s In Arkadia for Horn and Harp, a work I commissioned through the Horn Society’s Meir Rimon Commissioning Assistance Fund (read more here), 2) giving a lecture/demonstration on Solo Duet Training for Horns, and 3) performing in a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni horn ensemble, with Douglas Hill conducting. There are many more details to share about these, and I am planning separate posts about each one as the symposium approaches. In addition, I will of course be attending many other concerts and lectures, and checking out the exhibits. Hope to see you there!

As always, I want to wish my readers a safe, restful, and productive summer!

 

Recording Review: Table for Three

Table for Three is a brand new recording from Summit Records featuring three very prominent figures in the world of brass playing – John Ericson (horn), Douglas Yeo (bass trombone), and Deanna Swoboda (tuba). All three are members of the brass faculty at Arizona State University, with distinguished careers as performers and educators. The album contains an eclectic mix of solo and ensemble music, with an emphasis on recently commissioned and arranged works for the trio of horn, bass trombone, and tuba. Brass trio recordings tend to be pretty rare, with one challenge being assembling enough repertoire to make for an interesting and marketable album. The artists on Table for Three have certainly met that challenge, and the result is a really great recording! I have some specific comments about the album, but first here is a list of what’s on it. The asterisks indicate works which were commissioned by or written for the artists.

  • Elizabeth Raum, Relationships*
  • Louis Moreau Gottschalk/arr. Ron Geese, The Dying Poet
  • Anton Reicha/arr. John Ericson, Suite of Trios from Op. 82 and Op. 93 (2 Suites)
  • John Harmon, Silhouette for Tuba and Piano
  • Vaclav Nelhybel/adapted by Douglas Yeo, Trio for English Horn, Viola, and Tuba
  • William Schmidt, Sonatina
  • J.S. Bach/arr. Ralph Lockwood, Wenn Sorgen, auf mich Dringen
  • Benjamin McMillan, Fleeting Visions*
  • Heinrich Isaac/trans. Kenneth Singleton, Three Pieces
  • Paul Ferguson, Table for Three at Chez Janou*

Drawing upon a wide variety of styles, the works recorded here represent approximately 500 years of Western music history, from Renaissance through present day. The performers are more than equipped to meet the challenges of reproducing these various styles, doing it all with ease, sensitivity, and great sounds – both individually and as an ensemble. Though there are many positive things I could say about Table for Three, here is what struck me most about the album upon my first hearing – and which was later confirmed on repeated listening.

  • Ensemble Blend, Balance, and Precision: If you haven’t heard this particular combination of brass instruments before, you will probably be surprised by the agility and flexibility it’s capable of in the hands of great players. The overall timbre tends toward the lower, “darker” end of the spectrum simply because of the instrumentation, but there are plenty of exciting moments with just the right amount of “sizzle” in the sound. The ensemble playing is a model of precision and sensitivity, with spot-on intonation. Each player is adept at matching the style, phrasing, and articulations of the other members.
  • Reicha Trios Work Well for Lots of Different Instruments: Among the highlights of this album for me are the two suites from the horn trios, Op. 82 and 93 of Anton Reicha. Long a favorite of horn players, these works by one of Beethoven’s friends – and direct contemporaries – are delightful, and John Ericson’s arrangements for horn, bass trombone, and tuba work very well. The trio plays these pieces with a warm, rich sound, but with plenty of energy. Another suite of these trios exists in an arrangement by Bill Holcombe for trumpet, horn, and trombone. Though the overall timbre is different, the “high brass” version is also very effective.
  • Chamber Music is What You Make of It: An underlying theme of this album – as mentioned in the liner notes – is that chamber music is a wonderfully rewarding way to get to know your musical colleagues, and to explore (and create) repertoire that might otherwise be ignored. The musical material you choose is of course important, but with the right people, virtually any combination of instruments can be developed into an engaging and inspiring ensemble. Table for Three is a perfect example of the artistic potential of a non-conventional ensemble, and is highly recommended!

Recording Review: Solo, J. Bernardo Silva

silvacoverI received this very fine recording several months ago, and have listened to it multiple times. The soloist is Portuguese hornist  J. Bernardo Silva, a member of the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música, and faculty at Espinho Professional Music School and at the University of Aveiro. Having previously reviewed  a handful of unaccompanied horn recordings (herehere, and here), I think one of the biggest challenges is choosing a program with enough variety to keep the listener interested. In addition, the soloist must play be able with a wide range of colors, dynamics, etc., perhaps even beyond what is necessary  for a horn/piano or chamber music recording. With this disc, Mr. Silva delivers on both counts. The repertoire is a mix of standards and less familiar works.

  • J.S. Bach/ed. Orval, Cello Suite No. 1, BWV 1007
  • Bernhard Krol, Laudatio
  • Sigurd Berge, Hornlokk
  • Charles Koechlin, Monodie, Op. 218bis
  • Trygve Madsen, The Dream of the Rhinoceros
  • Vitaly Buyanovsky, España, from Traveling Impressions
  • Stephen Dodgson, Cor Leonis
  • Gioacchino Rossini/arr. Baumann, Le Rendez-vous de Chasse

Especially interesting are the Koechlin and Dodgson, because of their unfamiliarity. Both date from the 20th century, 1948 and 1990, respectively. The Koechlin is full of bravura writing, particularly in the  upper register, and would be a great addition to a recital program. In contrast, the Dodgson is more atmospheric, though equally effective. Dodgson is perhaps most well known for his guitar compositions, and studied horn at the Royal College of Music in London. For more information, see his obituary in The Guardian, April 2013. Here are some brief excerpts from each work, as found on YouTube.

These relatively obscure works are complemented with several standards from the unaccompanied horn repertoire, performed here with great virtuosity and sensitivity. I am always interested in hearing various interpretations of staples such as Krol’s Laudatio and Buyanovsky’ s España, and these are well worth a listen! Silva plays with a brilliant sound, refined phrasing, and a touch of vibrato. Even if you own several other recordings of the standards found on this disc, it’s worth picking up for the Koechlin and Dodgson alone.

Review: The Horn of Eric Ruske

Here’s a brief review of The Horn of Eric Ruske, a newly-released compendium by international horn soloist Eric Ruske (cover image linked from Amazon.com) . If you read The Horn Call, you’ve probably seen this seven-disc set advertised in its pages. It’s a great set of recordings, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Mr. Ruske’s playing. Even if you already own a few of these  CDs – as I do  – it’s still a bargain to buy the entire collection. The albums included are as follows, in chronological order of their recording dates. I’ve included a short description of the contents.

  • Night Poems (Recorded 1990) Horn and piano; Important solo works as well as several miniatures for horn and piano.
  • Mozart Horn Concerti (Recorded 1993) Mr. Ruske with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Sir Charles Mackerras. All four concertos, as well as the Concert Rondo, K. 371 and Fragment, K. 494a. Also includes a rare recording of Ill Wind by Flanders and Swan (based on the last movement of K. 495).
  • Virtuoso Music for Horn and Piano (Recorded 2000) Horn and piano; transcriptions and original works. Particularly noteworthy is the recording of Arban’s Fantasie and Variations on the Carnival of Venice.
  • The Classic Horn (Recorded 2002) Horn and piano; transcriptions of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic era works.
  • The Romantic Horn Concerti (Recorded 2005) Mr. Ruske with the IRIS Chamber Orchestra and Michael Stern. Recordings of major concertos for horn and orchestra by Richard Strauss, Franz Strauss, and Reinhold Glière.
  • Just Me and My Horn (Recorded 2006) Unaccompanied repertoire, including several transcriptions by Mr. Ruske.
  • Music by Three (Recorded 2010) Works for violin, horn, and piano by Brahms, Dubois, and Holbrooke.

Just looking at the above information, you can see that this collection encompasses a wide variety of repertoire over a twenty year period in Mr. Ruske’s prolific career. Rather than go into detail about each album, I’ll offer a few summary comments about what you’ll hear on these discs. First, his playing is remarkably consistent, from the earliest recording to the most recent. His sound is direct, but also capable of warmth and reserve where the music requires it. The technique is impeccable, but what stands out the most to me about these recordings is the phrasing, and confidence in the musical message being conveyed. One may not always agree with the musical choices a particular player makes – this can be said about anyone – but in the case of Eric Ruske it is impossible to ignore the conviction behind them. Mr. Ruske’s playing grabs the listener and holds his attention, sometimes through exaggeration, but often through subtlety. I had the opportunity in the summer of 2001 to participate in a week long series of master classes with Mr. Ruske at the Las Vegas Music Festival. This intense period consisted of at least two two-hour long master classes each day, covering solo repertoire, etudes, chamber music, and orchestral excerpts. Though we sometimes found the schedule a bit grueling, all of the participants came away with a wealth of experiences. For the entire week, Mr. Ruske approached his teaching in the same way he approaches his playing; with boundless energy and enthusiasm!

There are dozens of great solo horn recordings out there, but relatively few boxed sets like this one. If you’re looking to expand your recording library, The Horn of Eric Ruske is highly recommended.

Wednesday Review: Solo Works for Horn by Gallay: Anneke Scott, Natural Horn

Here’s a new recording of unaccompanied works for horn by Jacques-François Gallay, one of the premier horn players in Europe during the first half of the 19th century (cover image linked from Amazon.com). The soloist is Anneke Scott, who performs in London with numerous period instrument ensembles including the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. You can read her biography for details on her background and experience, but the best introduction is to watch (and listen to) this promotional video for her new recording.

Impressed yet?  The full recording is even better! As stated in the video, this CD contains selections from three of Gallay’s works for solo horn,  Op. 27 (40 Measured and Non-Measured Preludes), Op. 32 (12 Grand Caprices) and Op. 58 (22 Melodic Fantasies). Each set of three tracks begins with a Prelude, is followed by one of the Caprices, and closes with one of the Fantasies. There are a number of factors which make this not only an outstanding, but also important, recording. Here are a few of the high points for me.

  • The playing is very impressive. Scott plays with as much style and gusto as any soloist I’ve heard, and her technique on the natural horn is stunning.  Scott mentions in the promo video that Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin were probably an inspiration for Gallay’s works, which makes sense given their technical challenges. Scott is certainly up to the task, and pulls off even the most difficult passages with ease.
  • Despite being a recording of works by a single composer, there is a surprising amount of variety. Scott’s willingness to push the envelope when it comes to dynamics and tempo makes for some very exciting interpretations. Another way she achieves this variety is by playing some of the selections (the Preludes especially) in different keys (and on different crooks, I would assume).
  • While there are plenty of natural horn recordings out there, this one sets the bar quite high in terms of technique and musicality. Playing Gallay’s music – on any kind of horn – requires not only virtuosity, but also musical maturity and inventiveness. From a historical perspective it’s humbling to imagine the level of playing that Gallay and his contemporaries must have been capable of. There is an ethereal, almost other-worldly quality to the sound which isn’t really possible on the modern instrument, and it seems to me that playing these works (or at least attempting them) on a period instrument would give the performer more freedom and possibilities for expression. In my case I probably won’t ever have the natural horn technique to do these works justice, but in my experience attempting a piece on the instrument for which it was intended can bring new insights upon returning to the modern horn.

Friday Review: Mirari Brass, Spires

The market for brass quintet recordings is miniscule when compared to that of popular music. In an already small market with lots of very fine sounding ensembles,  new groups really have to bring something special to the table in order to succeed. I think Mirari Brass has done that with their debut CD, Spires. I heard them perform live in February of this year, and here is what I said back then.

Their recital was full of variety, including a Renassiance transcription,  new works commissioned by the group, and tunes by Chick Corea and Charles Mingus arranged by Noppe especially for this ensemble.  Though everything they did was polished and musically convincing, I was especially impressed by their performance of a new piece written for them by Eric Nathan. Titled “Spires,” the piece was filled with extended techniques and lots of timbral and textural effects. For a brief summary of the work and some sound clips, visit the  composer’s website. Another highlight of the performance were the Corea and Mingus arrangements, not exactly standard fare for the average brass quintet. They pulled off these difficult charts with great style and energy, and I think the group has definitely found a niche with these kinds of works. If you consider the really big names in the brass quintet world…each group has carved out a place for themselves in an extremely competitive market through creative programming along with brilliant playing.  In my opinion, Mirari Brass is well on their way to making a name for themselves by doing the same thing.  Bravo again for a wonderful performance! (read the entire review)

To my ear, their first album – titled after the Eric Nathan work which they commissioned and recorded – captures all of the excitement and variety of the live performance. Having heard them in person, I can say that the recording gives a very accurate representation of the ensemble’s abilities, which is not always the case, both in classical and popular music. Here’s a brief overview of each track on the CD.

Canyon Run, Alex Noppe: As well as performing on trumpet with the group, Noppe is the principal arranger for Mirari Brass and has also composed original works for them. The opening track provides a spirited introduction to the rest of the album.  From the get-go the ensemble grabs your attention with clean, virtuosic playing.

Revecy Venir du Printans, Claude le Jeune/arr. Noppe: Renaissance transcriptions are traditionally very popular with brass groups, and Noppe’s arrangement of this 16th-century Chanson really sparkles. To my knowledge this is the only recording, but I imagine that other quintets would really enjoy performing this arrangement as well.

Contrapunctus IX, J.S. Bach/arr. Ralph Sauer: This staple in the quintet literature shows off the precision and balance of this recording. Though it is a studio recording, there’s still a nice resonance to both the group sound and individual instruments.

Spain, Chick Corea/arr. Noppe:  This is one of my favorite tracks on the album, along with the final two tracks – transcriptions of tunes by Charles Mingus, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and Haitian Fight Song. All three works fit the group extremely well, and it shows in the energy and passion with which they play them. Lots of quintets can play jazz, but not many can pull off these kinds of tunes.

Spires, Eric Nathan and Quintet for Brass, Austin Jaquith: I’m combining my discussion of these two works because they were both commissioned by the Mirari Brass, and because they are the most contemporary-sounding pieces on the CD. They play both pieces with an incredible amount of dynamic and stylistic contrast, and pull off the extended techniques in Eric Nathan’s Spires with ease. As always it’s great to see collaborations of this sort between composers and performers.

Nessun Dorma, Giacomo Puccini/arr. Tony Rickard: This arrangement features Mirari’s horn player, Jessie Thoman, playing the famous tenor aria.  Though it would be easy for the horn melody to be buried in a brass quintet, the balance is quite good on this recording. Thoman’s sound on this track, and on the entire album,  is exactly what the music requires, ranging from big and warm to brassy and penetrating. It should be noted that Rickard’s arrangement is transposed up several steps from the original pitch, but Thoman makes even the soaring line at the end sound easy.

I’ve listened to lots of brass quintet recordings: in my dissertation research I spent hours poring over brass quintet scores and listening intently to dozens and dozens of recordings. When it comes to musicality, variety, and sheer energy in performance, this new recording by Mirari Brass compares very favorably to other recordings by big name artists.